We were discussing the violence that is sweeping American cities -- a record 703 homicides last year in Washington alone -- when a friend startled me with this question: Why don't we try teaching young people that killing is wrong?
What startled me was the innocence of the question and the seriousness with which it was asked. Did my friend really suppose that the young people who are killing each other don't know that what they are doing is wrong? Can he imagine that a series of murder-isn't-nice lectures would have any effect on the carnage? Even if he believes that instruction in courtesy, mutual respect and ethical behavior is worthwhile, can't he understand that the youngster who sees a gun as a reasonable way of settling a dispute is beyond the reach of such instruction?
I still don't know whether the question was insightful or absurd. But as I promised my friend, I've been thinking about it.
And one of the thoughts that occurs to me is this: Why do I think it makes sense to teach a child not to take another's lunch but see it as hopelessly naive to teach him not to take another's life? Why do I find it reasonable to urge children to avoid playground fights but not to counsel them against murder?
The reason, I suppose, is that I believe the children already know that force and violence are wrong. Most of them do, of course. But if they don't learn it at home, are they likely to learn it by observing the dispute-settlement techniques of their elders? Are they likely to pick it up from the general culture?
I refer of course to the movies and TV shows that routinely exalt violence, but I also have in mind something far more mundane: partisans who settle public disputes not through reason but through intimidation, politicians who count on votes and money -- power -- to get their way when rational argument fails, parents who enforce their will with the threat of a belt and motorists who resort to the threat of violence to establish the right to a parking space.
In these and countless other ways, don't we teach our children that talking out problems is a wimp's game?
Our young people, John Feinblatt of New York's Victim Services Agency said in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, are inundated with the message that violence solves problems.
Echoing my friend's "naive" view, he urged that we "teach our youth to resolve their problems with words and compromise, not guns and murder."
For Feinblatt, it is no empty theory. He cites the success of Project Smart -- School Mediators' Alternative Resolution Team -- which for seven years has used student mediators to settle everything from lunchroom brawls and student-teacher conflicts to interracial incidents and gang fights. Agreements drawn up by the student mediators are honored 90 percent of the time, he says.
More to the point: "Students introduced to mediation as disputants often become mediators, proud of their skill. Suspensions for fighting in participating schools have decreased by up to 72 percent."
There's a world of difference between a lunchroom fight and a drug-turf shoot-out involving Uzis and AK-47s. But the resort to violence doesn't begin with drug wars and automatic weapons. Surely some of today's gunslingers are children who never learned the art of nonviolent dispute settlement. And just as surely, some of those who first acquired guns to settle turf disputes now use them to settle traffic disputes. It may be that armed gangsters aren't interested in mediation services, but isn't it also probable that those youngsters who never learned to "talk it out" are the most likely to turn to the violence that too often escalates to murder?
The more I think about it, the less naive my friend seems. Maybe it isn't as silly as I first thought to try teaching our young people that violence (and other resorts to raw power) are wrong. The teaching can be done through exhortation and recourse to techniques for dispute settlement, but it can also be done through example -- by letting young people see their elders eschew sheer power (whether fisticuffs, political intimidation or lawsuits) in favor of "words and compromise."
Can those of us who have achieved some power, and who rely on our power to get our way, claim moral superiority to the economically and politically powerless who see a handgun as their "equalizer"? Don't we have a duty to teach them another way?
Feinblatt says we do and that the teaching should begin early.
"Peer conflict resolution should be the fourth 'R' in all our schools at every grade level," he believes. "Far from being a utopian approach, it is a practical solution to the violence that wracks our city. The way to keep kids from reaching for guns is by teaching them, from the first grade on, that 'talking it out' works."